Dwindling Fresh Water Supply

by Keith B Published 6.17.2015

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) through its Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has recently issued several news releases that continue to reinforce worries about our fresh water supply.  In a May 8th release they confirm that “Across most of the West, snowpack isn’t just low, it’s gone” and they add that for most of the West the snow pack at their monitoring stations is at or near the lowest on record.  “Snowmelt inflow into the Lake Powell Reservoir is forecast at 34% of normal.” Lake Powell Reservoir supplies water to much of the Southwest, including Las Vegas, Los Angeles and southern Arizona. 

Then on May 14th they announced increased funding for conservation efforts related to the Ogallala Aquifer, which is reportedly “being depleted at an unsustainable rate.” The Ogallala Aquifer was formed over 1 million years ago and covers about 174,000 square miles in several central states as shown in the map below.

Ogallala Aquifer

Natural Resources Conservation Service - Ogallala Aquifer Initiative

The lack of snowpack and depleting aquifers (the Ogallala is just one of many documented)  offer further reinforcement and evidence that we are experiencing and will continue to experience fresh water supply problems across much of the United States and around the world. While this is by no means “breaking news”, what is somewhat out of the ordinary is the state of California’s recently announced Executive Order B-29-15 where Governor Brown has challenged (imposed restrictions on) the urban potable water users to decrease their consumption by 25% over their 2013 volumes through February 2016. This order is quite broad and includes incentives to promote more water efficient appliances, removal of turf lawns in favor of drought compatible landscape designs, new technologies for reuse, among others. 

IThe order also attempts to include in the reduction analyses a “per capita” use review so that those areas where good conservation efforts are already being practiced won’t be affected as much as those areas where the use is less efficient. While I tend to be one who is not in favor of allot of big government intervention, I think these efforts are very important and needed. We can’t continue to just put our heads in the sand and wait until we turn on the tap and get no water. It remains to be seen how effective this order will be and how efficiently the policing of such an order can be carried out. But any efforts that move us towards water conservation and increased use of water recycling technologies are very necessary steps in the right direction.

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Water Issues' Effect on Conflict and Civil Unrest

by Keith B Published 8.26.2013

In the May 18th Sunday Review of The New York Times, Thomas Friedman wrote a very thought provoking article entitled “Without Water, Revolution.” It covers what is going on today in Syria and how water issues play a big role in the civil unrest that plagues that country today. He describes how the drought that hit the country from 2006 to 2011 significantly changed the distribution of the population, forcing small, independent, proud farmers to abandon their rural lands and move to cities to try and eke out an existence; and how many of the few jobs that did exist were given to favorites of the government. What I found interesting was that when previously I had thought about the unrest in Syria, I did not think about water, and also that one of the main issues some of the people had with the existing government was that they hadn't done enough in reaction to the drought.

Illustration of a modern Syrian man and a Dust Bowl era American man, both drinking water

Further research on this topic found the article recently published in Science Magazine by Hsiang, Burke and Miguel entitled “Quantifying the Influence of Climate on Human Conflict.” While most of this article (especially those parts relating to statistics) flew clearly over my head, it was easy to see that this subject has been studied in depth, and that with the many associated variables, coming up with a direct cause and effect is a challenge. Variables such as economic conditions, normal average temperature of a region, and interrelations between temperature and rainfall levels can all affect the data. There are even data presented linking high rainfall levels with unrest such as Hindu-Muslim riots. Hsiang et al state in their conclusions that “We do not conclude that climate is the sole—or even primary—driving force in conflict, but we do find that when large climate variations occur, they can have substantial effects on the incidence of conflict across a variety of contexts.”

In her review of this article, Rebecca Morelle of BBC News states “They estimate that a 2°C (3.6°F) rise in global temperature could see personal crimes increase by about 15%, and group conflicts rise by more than 50% in some regions.” She also found some opposing views where Dr. Halvard Buhaug, from the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway finds that civil war in Africa was linked not to climate-related issues, but to other factors such as high infant mortality, proximity to international borders and high local population density. I might suggest that water quality could also play a role in the infant mortality issue and that the population density might be a product of previous drought conditions.

Refocusing from these studies covering centuries of change and human history to our lives in the USA today, I wonder what is going on right under our noses today that may someday become a blip in a future professor’s study. We know in American history, farms, towns, and cities were all built in close proximity to water supplies or areas with sufficient precipitation, or both. This was done for human consumption, irrigation or transportation needs. Immediate changes in the supply or quality of the water were readily apparent. Times in history like the famed Dust Bowl of the 1930s in the Great Plains saw major changes in populations and occupations. Farmers left the dried up land and headed for cities like Los Angeles. This was an obvious change. But slow changes in water availability, like a dropping water table or increasing contaminants, are harder to see and react to. And now that most of us rely on underground pipes to “magically” supply us with water, we really don't give it much of a thought—until the day when we open the faucet and nothing, or something not exactly like water, comes out. When that happens will we look to our government, just as many Syrians have, and ask, “how could you let this happen?” Will this be a type of climate change that will bring conflict?

We all need to continue to increase our attention to the wide variety of water issues that surround our neighborhoods, towns, cities, workplaces, counties, countries, and world. We must become more aware of changes in our fresh water supplies, learn to use those resources more efficiently, and embrace recycling concepts as often as possible. While we may not be able to affect climate temperature issues that drive conflict and unrest, it is possible that we can counteract somewhat those related to water changes.

Update February 6, 2014: I wrote another post about water and conflict…but this time it's about how water was part of a conflict's resolution!

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Flash Flood Sure, But Flash Drought?

by Ed R Published 7.20.2012

This year’s mild winter, low soil moisture and an early June heat wave have created the perfect “heat storm”. In their June “Global Analysis Report” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) has determined that this June was the warmest in U.S. history since 1880, and was the warmest month on record for the entire northern hemisphere.

Illustration of popcorn popping right off the stalkA new term has been coined by the NOAA. If you are encountering a condition where there is a sudden unexpected, lingering burst of high temperatures (90+), low humidity and lots of sunshine (not a cloud in the sky), then you are in a “flash drought”.

This condition is occurring in many parts of the Midwestern United States. Hardest hit is the Corn Belt, Missouri in particular. According to the Drought Monitor (a weekly report of drought conditions throughout the United States), approximately two thirds of the Midwest is in some stage of drought.

Affected are the major staple crops such as corn and soybeans. The drought hit when the young plants were most susceptible. This has lead to decreased corn production. Forbes reports that grain prices have risen approximately 47% since mid-June on the Chicago Board of Trade.

Water Districts throughout the Midwest have asked their customers to use water wisely and implement voluntary water conservation measures. If this continues then mandatory measures won’t be far behind.

Here in Northeast Ohio, June wasn’t so bad, but July is getting nasty. Most all of the lawns are some shade of brown, and on the home front (my backyard) despite my best efforts, the zucchini are pretty much toast and the cucumbers are withering away before really bearing much fruit. The tomatoes and especially the peppers however are growing through the roof. Win some lose some I guess.


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